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Misuse and Abuse of Prescription Drugs Among Teens

Last year, The Partnership at DrugFree.org and the MetLife Foundation reported that the recreational use of prescription drugs among teenagers had increased 33 percent in the five years between 2008 and 2013 to a point where one in four teens has misused


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Why the Increase in Prescription Drug Abuse?

“Angie overheard her parents talking about how her brother’s ADHD medicine was making him less hungry. Because Angie was worried about her weight, she started sneaking one of her brother’s pills every few days.”

“Todd found an old bottle of painkillers that had been left over from his father’s operation. He decided to try them. Because a doctor had prescribed the pills, Todd figured that meant they were safe.”

These vignettes from kidshealth.org point out several of the reasons for the upward trend of prescription drug use among our children:

  • The attitudes and misconceptions of teens
  • The attitudes and behaviors of their parents
  • The increasing availability of these medications

Kids’ Attitudes and Misconceptions

Young people take drugs for many reasons: They want to be cool. They want to fit in. They think drugs will help them lose weight, stay awake or get some sleep. They feel that the stimulants will help them get better grades. Sometimes they are pressured to use drugs by their peers. Sometimes they have real physical or emotional pain and don’t know where to find help.

Teens who are prescribed pain pills following a sports injury or who innocently take a pill that is passed around at a party can develop a physical dependency to the pills in a surprisingly short period of time. No amount of education or pleading can stop the neurochemical process of addiction from happening.

Prescription drug abuse has been normalized in the teen subculture. It’s talked about as freely and openly (with peers, not with parents, of course) as what was on TV last night or who is no longer dating whom.

Children and teens tend to believe that prescribed and over-the-counter medications must be safe. Otherwise, why would the doctors and pharmacies dispense them? Why would their parents have them? In studies, interviewed teens say they are sure that their parents would be less angry if they were busted using prescription drugs rather than street drugs.

While 80 percent of teens say that they had a conversation with their parents about marijuana and alcohol in the past year, and 30 percent about crack/cocaine, less than 15 percent say that they ever had a discussion at home about the misuse of prescription meds.

Parents’ Attitudes and Behaviors

It appears that some of what kids say about their parents is true.

Parents too often fail to effectively communicate the dangers of prescription medication misuse to their kids. Those parents who have talked to their children have taken an important first step, but merely telling children not to misuse prescription medications is not enough. A parent’s attitudes and behaviors send a much more powerful message than lectures and admonitions.

In fact, 20 percent of parents say that they have given a prescription drug to a child of theirs even though it was not prescribed for that child. Almost one-third of parents feel that stimulant drugs like Ritalin and Adderall would help their children’s attention and performance in school even if they are not diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

One of every two teenagers says it’s easy to get meds from a parent’s medicine cabinet. Fifty percent of parents admit that “anyone” can get into their meds, and nearly 20 percent do not dispose of expired or unused medications.

Prescription Drugs Most Available and Most Abused Stimulants Ritalin or Adderall are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with function or development.” The diagnosis is complex and is generally based on an array of behaviors, conditions and symptoms as observed by a trained professional.Treatment for ADHD is behavioral and medical.

Nearly 7 million American children diagnosed with ADHD have been prescribed one of the amphetamine-like stimulants Ritalin or Adderall. Alarmingly, one in eight teens who has NOT been diagnosed with ADHD has taken these medications without a prescription. 

Although the United States makes up only 4 percent of the world’s population, it uses 70 percent of the world’s supply of Adderall and Ritalin. Even toddlers are being prescribed these stimulants for hyperactivity, a disturbing trend that could lead to addiction, use of other drugs and health problems.

The rate of stimulant prescriptions for college students and other adults is also increasing at a brisk rate, making them more easily available in households and on college campuses. The result is an increase in deliberate abuse of stimulants and accidental overdose.

Side effects of stimulant medications include increased blood pressure, respiration and heart rate, constriction of blood vessels, and increased blood glucose levels. Stimulants can be addictive.

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants, including Xanax, Valium and Ativan, slow normal brain function. These tranquilizers and sedatives, which are used to treat anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disorders, can be addictive. Combining CNS depressants with prescription pain medications, certain over-the-counter cold and allergy medications or alcohol can slow breathing and heart rate, which in some cases can be fatal.

Opioids, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, also called narcotics, are prescribed to treat pain. Side effects include drowsiness, constipation, nausea and itching. Confusion or dizziness may also occur. High doses of opioids result in serious respiratory side effects, which if severe can damage the body’s organs and lead to a coma.

Warning Signs of Prescription Drug Use

  • Pupils smaller or larger than usual
  • Change in sleep habits
  • Change in energy level
  • Change in personal appearance or hygiene
  • Change in mood/personality
  • Social withdrawal from family and friends
  • Change in friends
  • Sudden change in grades
  • Loss of appetite
  • Defensiveness when asked simple questions (attempt to hide a drug dependency)

Prevention…What Can We Do as Parents?

  • Kids who start abusing drugs when they are young are more likely to have an addiction problem as adults. Parents should do all that they can to help their children make good decisions about drugs.
  • Realize what a huge influence you have on your kids and set an example you’d like them to follow.
  • Love your children. Nurture a relationship in which they feel safe talking about what’s going on in their lives and sharing anything that is bothering them.
  • Tell your children about the risks of drugs, and be clear about how upset you would be if they abused them. Kids who are well informed about the risks are up to 50 percent less likely to use drugs.
  • Set reasonable expectations and boundaries for your children’s behavior. If there is a problem, take a stand and take charge.
  • Encourage your children to participate in sports and/or academic or social activities.
  • Know your teen’s friends and their parents.
  • If narcotic, stimulant or depressant medications are kept in your home, make sure that they are stored securely . . . not in the family medicine cabinet. Monitor the number of pills you have.
  • Dispose of any medications that are no longer needed or used.
  • Support community and school-based drug prevention meetings and programs.
  • Utilize professional help when needed.

Drugfree.org has support, tools, resources and answers.


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